Throughout the past few decades, laws and regulations protecting the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer population have progressed quite a bit.
“Several decades ago, transgender wasn’t a term,” transgender woman and LGBTQ advocate Laura Macwaters said.
Macwaters says a lot has changed since the 70s and 80s.
“Politicians wouldn’t talk to us,” said Macwaters. “They wouldn’t accept our money. We could be fired and kicked out, harassed and assaulted at will with hardly any protections.”
Macwaters says she waited to share her true identity with others until she felt safe out in public. She honestly never thought the day would come.
“It is just mind-bogglingly awesome to see all the things I never thought I would live to see. Never thought I’d live this long to begin with, much less live to see such an outwilling of support and love from people and acceptance,” Macwaters said.
One organization that monitors the progression of LGBTQ rights and policies across the country is the Human Rights Campaign. It’s the nation’s largest human-rights organization working to achieve equality for the LGBTQ community. And each year, it releases a scorecard called the State Equality Index.
“The State Equality Index is a nationwide evaluation of the laws and policies in all of the states across the country – plus D.C. – to measure how inclusive those state laws and policies are of LGBTQ people,” State Legislative Director Cathryn Oakley said.
According to Oakley, each state is put into one of four categories. The highest-ranking category is called “Working Toward Innovative Equality.” In 2019, 17 states and Washington D.C. were placed into that category.
Those states are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, D.C., Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.
“They have comprehensive non-discrimination laws, they’re making sure students aren’t going to be bullied in school, they have all of the basic fundamental things we’re looking for in terms of making sure that LGBTQ people are able to participate in life fully and without fear,” Oakley said.
Executive Director Daniel Ramos with One Colorado – the state’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization – says Colorado has expanded multiple harassment and medical protections.
“Just last year, we passed two of our major legislative priorities. One is a bill that makes it easier for transgender and non-binary Coloradans to update the gender on their state ids known as 'Jude’s Law'. And we also became the 18th state to ban the practice of conversation therapy by state-licensed medical and mental health professionals,” Ramos said.
Moreover, Colorado elected the country’s first openly gay governor. While dozens of states are making big moves toward legal equality, many in the LGBTQ community agree there’s still a lot that needs to be done.
“Unfortunately we are actually now looking at more than 60 anti-transgender bills that have been filed across the country this year which is the most anti-transgender bills that we’ve ever seen filed in the last five or six years,” Oakley said.
That includes bills that would impose criminal penalties on doctors or parents who support a trans youth through transition, and bills that would ban trans athletes from being able to participate in school sports consistent with their gender identity. LGBTQ people like Geneva Smith and Jack Seriani say bills like these are their motivation to lobby for change.
“I think we’ve made a lot of great strides, and then you see a lot of people trying to roll it back,” Smith said.
“I want us to be protected from discrimination. I want us to be able to go to public spaces and not feel threatened,” Seriani said.
Something as simple as going to the restroom is still a scary and nerve-wracking experience for many LGBTQ folks.
“My daughter came out in kindergarten, and she stayed as the wrong sex during kindergarten because it was easier. And when we did try and come out, the school that we were at had a problem with her going to the restroom,” LGBTQ advocate Jamie Bruce said.
Parents Xavier Saenz and Jamie Bruce say there are now laws protecting their daughter and she’s free to use the bathroom that belongs to the gender she identifies as. The changes they’ve witnessed give them hope for a more inclusive future. Not only are laws changing, but so are many of the hearts and minds in the general public.
“When people say, ‘hey I don’t know an LGBTQ person,’ for many folks that is no longer the truth. An LGBTQ person is often someone that they know, someone that they love, and so there’s an experience of why equal treatment for LGBTQ folks is incredibly important,” Ramos said.
LGBTQ advocates say they expect the momentum toward equality to continue and they’re grateful to see more and more states standing up for their rights.
“Not everyone can stand up for themselves, so one state to stand up and represent, it helps other states follow,” Seriani said.
“I’d like people everywhere nationwide to live in accepting communities where this is really the least interesting thing about us,” Macwaters said.
“When we are just normal people, that’s what’s going to make the difference,” Saenz said.